Digitalisation and the Environment

F: Nathaniel Stern: Tiny Fan (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Energy, efficiency, sustainability, conscious consumption and global impact as topic for education and learning.

For a long time, little attention was paid to the effects of digitalisation. People often look primarily at the potential benefits of new digital infrastructures. These are designed to distribute water, electricity, light, heat or transport as efficiently as possible or to help avoid overproduction.

But it would be one-sided if we didn’t also look at the negative side, the consumption of resources, which is necessary in order to even think about resource-saving, smart solutions. After all, energy-efficient smartphones, smart home technology or smart cities have a resource base.

Education can ask more specific questions here. What effort must be expended to keep this global Internet running? How much energy is really in the device, even before I plug it into the charger for the first time? What can we do as users and buyers, what can we do as publicly involved citizens?

Education for democratic citizenship and environmental education should strive for critical thinking and a balanced picture. This article describes some aspects that should be discussed in the context of the ecological footprint of digitalisation. It also puts the issue in a global perspective appropriate to the Internet and the globally interconnected digital economy.

Energy Demand

In times of climate change, maybe energy hunger is the most obvious aspect which comes into mind when thinking about the relation between the environment and digitalisation. The efficiency gains by technological advancement are insufficient in compensating the growing need for electricity. Although the global platforms are moving toward renewable energy, the rebound effect lets us consider, where to twiddle the necessary knobs (Greenpeace, 2017). According to Greenpeace, by 2030, 13% of the global electricity will go to data centres.

In line with efforts to create a carbon free energy future, digital practices might also be better reflected. For instance, video streaming is clearly identified as an activity with a huge potential for reduction. Will we experience again a way back to “old fashioned” downloads, and will there be incentives to reduce consumptive internet traffic? The current developments show us moving in the opposite direction, rather mainstreaming the model of streaming digital entertainment by investing in the necessary server power.

Current developments show the opposite tendency, as the streaming model is spreading rather than being reduced by investments in the necessary server power. Clouds are replacing more and more local servers. The example also shows that environmental education about the energy consumption of end consumers must also take into account more resource-saving practices of digital business models.

Energy demand of servers and data centres in Germany
Source: Borderstep 2020

Production and Repair

Also the method of producing devices (including ever cheaper smartphones, tablets, TVs or digital notebooks) is leading to reduced life cycles and less willingness to repair or reuse devices. Prices which do not factor in the social and ecological costs of increasing ICT consumption, obsolescence by design, complicated repairability or lacking software support are pushing consumers to buy new products more often.

Decreasing Prices for Computers
1977 Apple II – $5,389 (original price $1,298)
1985 Commodore Amiga 1000 – $3,028 (original price $1,295)
1999 Compaq ProSignia 330 – $4,076 (original price $2,699)
2021 Lenovo Thinkpad T14 – $ 1.800

USA Today (2018/06/22)

Miniaturisation (Reduction of components is having also another consequence. Modular solutions, like old desktop computers which allowed owners to replace or renew parts, are extinct. The website Ifixit is empowering consumers to repair their devices with published guides and advocacy for a “right to repair”, according to the provocative question: “Would you buy a car if it was illegal to replace the tires?”

Beyond repair, refurbishing is also still a niche. Some resellers are offering checked and repaired hardware (often the longer lasting business hardware). However, there is a global demand for used and refurbished mobile phones of the top brands and models. Some producers like Apple are also starting offering used devices. However, Apple may be seen as an exemplary case – on the one hand they are trying to explore the field of used ICT and probably closing a niche, on the other hand the company is critically toward a right to repair and not very assistive to independent repair shops providing them original spare parts.

Procurement Criteria

Environmental labels and standards play a role primarily in public procurement and in companies. Despite the fact of already established seals for new hardware considering ecological and quality criteria, the broader public is not familiar with these. Cheap “consumer” devices are not listed in the database of the worldwide EPEAT seal. However, a buy of devices listed in the gold and silver categories might often pay off.

Longer Usage

According to a study by the United Nations, per capita worldwide 7.33 kg of e-waste was generated (Forti et al., 2020). A special characteristic of smartphones and tablets is that these devices are often are often rendered unusable by their manufacturers in an indirect manner by no longer offering security and software updates. Extending their useful life then enables rooting – bypassing the built-in security mechanisms, which in turn makes it possible to install free operating operating systems, which are supplied with security updates by a community beyond the manufacturer’s support.The Free Software Foundation for instance is giving hints as to how to install a free Android operating system on smartphones and tablets (for instance LineageOS).

Owners of older Windows and Mac computers and laptops can often help themselves by installing another leightweight operating system, usually based on the free Linux. Thanks to dedicated programmers, there are slim operating system variants (so-called distributions) especially suited for older hardware.

Circular Economy

The socio-political conception leading toward more sustainability and conscious use of resources is the circular economy. The EU is pushing it currently forward in the framework of its Green New Deal. In particular the EU Commission aims to come up with regulatory measures “for electronics and ICT including mobile phones, tablets and laptops under the Ecodesign Directive so that devices are designed for energy efficiency and durability, repairability, upgradability, maintenance, reuse and recycling.” It proposes also “to work toward establishing a new ‘right to repair’” and a Circular Electronics Initiative (EUC COM(2020) 98 final).

The lavish hardware consumption is also possible because most devices in 2020 are produced in China and Vietnam (Wired, 2019), countries with low wages, because the necessary raw materials (rare earth) often come from conflict regions, or because the social and environmental consequences of their extraction and the e-waste exported to poor countries (Parajuly et al., 2019) are not priced in. A circular economy approach softens the negative environmental and social effects of raw material exploitation.

The demand for raw materials is constantly increasing and globally they are unequally distributed. In their report, “Critical Raw Materials Resilience: Charting a Path towards greater Security and Sustainability”, the EU explores the European raw material dependence, with a view on global demand, concluding that “despite improvements in materials intensity and resource efficiency” still 110% more raw materials need to be exploited in 2060 compared to 2011 and by a total of 167 billion tons (EU-COM 2020/474 final, p. 5).

Today, initiatives for fair trade or conflict-free IT aiming to strengthen the position of workers involved in the manufacturing process and also the position of production societies in world trade have not yet made a significant impact, although some initiatives like the project, Make ICT Fair (engaging for more fair public procurement policies) or Fairphone or Shiftphone, are raising awareness about the production conditions of hardware. But in general, a fair European approach to “Critical Raw Materials Resilience” would need to prove that ethical words and fair global cooperation are a priority of European policies and economic practices.

Where do Europe’s critical raw materials come from? Source: EU-COM 2020/474 final

Aspects of Digitalisation in Education for Sustainable Development, more Sustainability into Learning about Digitalisation

The Internet and the digital transformation as a whole effect the whole world, but in different ways. Digital transformation can be explored as a phenomenon of globalisation, also included in global competence learning, for example in line with the global competence framework of OECD PISA: “Global competence is the capacity to examine local, global and intercultural issues, to understand and appreciate the perspectives and world views of others, to engage in open, appropriate and effective interactions with people from different cultures, and to act for collective well-being and sustainable development” (OECD PISA, 2018).

Education for sustainable development (ESD) addresses corresponding aspects in its various ESD goals, takes up corresponding aspects (compare UNESCO 2017). Environmental education also includes topics such as energy consumption,circular economy, sustainable production, repairability or recycling and must be expanded to include the context of the digital be expanded.

Civic education can broaden the view beyond the end-user’s practice end-user practice by also reflecting on the conditions for their networking and their conditions for their networking and functioning. Ultimately, it is not virtual platforms, but rather concrete power plants, factories, data centers and means of transport that make global digitization possible and in the process and leave behind a larger or smaller ecological footprint. These concrete enablers or barriers to sustainable sustainable digitization deserve more attention from political educational practice.

Global learning can contribute to understanding the impact of the digital transformation. The countries of Europe are an important and influential part of the global Internet. If Europe, as the European Commission has set itself the goal, a “European path” to digitalization, Europeans must also ask themselves Europeans must also ask themselves what global vision they share in terms of ecological vision they share in terms of ecological responsibility, and what global responsibility arises from this claim.

Europe-related education is also called upon to consider the question of the effects of the European path of digitalization with regard to environmental and environmental and social aspects within and outside Europe.


European Commission (EU-COM 2020/474 final). Communication from the Commission to the European Parliament, the Council, the European Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of the Regions – Critical Raw Materials Resilience: Charting a Path towards greater Security and Sustainability.

European Commission (EU-COM (2020) 98 final). Circular Economy Action Plan; For a cleaner and more competitive Europe; Brussels, 11.3.2020.

Forti V., Baldé C.P., Kuehr R., Bel G. (2020). The Global E-waste Monitor 2020: Quantities, flows and the circular economy potential.

United Nations University (UNU)/United Nations Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR) – co-hosted SCYCLE Programme, International Telecommunication Union (ITU) & International Solid Waste Association (ISWA), Bonn/Geneva/Rotterdam. ISBN Digital: 978-92-808-9114-0, ISBN Print: 978-92-808-9115-7. Zugriff am 1.8.21

Greenpeace (2017). Clicking Clean: Who is Winning the Race to Build a Green Internet? Cook, G. et al., Greenpeace Inc.: Washington.

Hintemann, R. (2020). Rechenzentren 2020. Cloud Computing profitiert von der Krise. Energiebedarf der Rechenzentren steigt trotz Corona weiter an. Borderstep Institut, Berlin, Zugriff am 1.8.21.

OECD PISA (2018). Preparing our Youth for an Inclusive and Sustainable World. The OECD PISA global competence framework. Directorate for Education and Skills, Paris.

Parajuly, K.; Kuehr, R.; Awasthi, A. K.; Fitzpatrick, C.; Lepawsky, J.; Smith E.; Widmer, R.; Zeng, X. (2019). Future E-waste Scenarios (2019). StEP (Bonn), UNU ViE-SCYCLE (Bonn) & UNEP IETC (Osaka). Zugriff am 1.8.21

The Shift Project (2019). Lean ICT: Towards digital sobriety. Report of the Working Group directed by Hugues Ferreboeuf for the Think Tank The Shift Project. March 2019. Zugriff am 1.8.21.

UNESCO (2017). Education for Sustainable Development Goals: learning objectives. Paris.

USA Today (2018/10/03). Comen, E.: Check out how much a computer cost the year you were born. Zugriff am 1.8.21.

Wired (2019/09/02). Chris Stokel-Walker: China’s quickly losing its position as the world’s smartphone factory Zugriff am 1.8.21

The Internet, Big Data & Platforms

This text was published in the frame of the project DIGIT-AL – Digital Transformation Adult Learning for Active Citizenship.

Zimmermann, N.: The Internet, Big Data & Platforms (2020). Part of the reader: Smart City, Smart Teaching: Understanding Digital Transformation in Teaching and Learning. With guest contributions of Viktor Mayer-Schönberger, Manuela Lenzen, Irights.Lab and José van Dijck and contributions of Elisa Rapetti and Marco Oberosler. DARE Blue Lines, Democracy and Human Rights Education in Europe, Brussels 2020.